Thursday, May 29, 2008

San Ignacio

The local Hi-Et Hotel

No one I talked to had eaten at the delicious seafood restaurant. And not just because it looks so deadly...

I feel like I could have lived here for the rest of my life.

San Ignacio is a friendly little place with a large fresh fruit market, numerous pubs and eateries, and friendly people. It has its charms, people sit on their verandas and watch the world go by, people drink beer at 7 a.m. for breakfast, go and sit at a table with a chess set for 5 minutes and someone will come by for a game. Everything is a two minute walk away. There are no lines in grocery stores, just one long counter where the price of your items are tallied and everyone looks for change at the same time. There is a lot that is good, in other words.

At the same time it is not without its annoyances , walk two steps outside and you hear: "Taxi?" "Taxi?" "Need a cab?" "Hey buddy, where are you going?" "Taxi?"

I have never seen a place so flooded with taxis. They need to go to Barcelona, over there people wait in long lines for a cab. I saw actual fist fights break out over cabs in Barcelona...but that is the way it is with the world, isn't it?

Another nuisance of San Ignacio is the general listlessness and sketchiness of certain people. There are those who drag themselves into conversations just to end up asking for a dollar. Bums hang out by food vendors wanting to pressure you for a bite. All this can be avoided with practice, but it is startling at first.

Time really is the main thing to settling into a place or lifestyle. My first 10 days traveling were tough. I couldn't concentrate on music or books. I spent a lot of time comparing costs of goods and coping with new possessions and routines. But with that done, I feel like I could have pressed on and traveled for a long time. I started listening to music again, I felt like I could start to write a just took some time to adjust.

Still, I am glad I am home now. I know there is a lot to do here, and I won't be bored. I did a lot during my time in Belize:

  • Climbed Mayan ruins
  • Sailed the Caribbean
  • Swam with sharks
  • Hung out at pubs till the late hours
  • Made my way through small water-filled passages of a cave

I think more important than those things though were the little things I encountered:

  • I saw tour guides give a beer to fishermen who had been out all day
  • I bumped into people and had a coffee with them
  • I peeled a coconut on the beach
  • People were kind to me, paying for my cab, giving me water, giving me fruit samples
  • I talked with store keepers about their troubles and debts
  • I saw Lebanese T.V. in grocery stores

I can't think of any more right now, but there were a lot of nice little moments of kindness and civility that always made my trip.

At the time I felt like I could have pressed on, rode a bus into Guatemala, and then to Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama...really though, I didn't have much of the heart or gusto to see all that just now...there will always be another day, and more adventures waiting for me...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech is located at the top of a mountain just 20 walking minutes from San Ignacio, yesterday I decided to go up to the park:








As I was not in a tour yesterday I got a chance to compare the difference between tour travel and solo travel. In general, going to a site solo is more peaceful and the meaning is all different. You are not seeing things and hearing a theoretical story. All the ruins are there as they are, and their meaning is what it is for the present time. Old ruins that once belonged to some civilization. Also, going solo means you can take tons of time. I climbed to the top of the tallest ruins and had a rest under the shade of a tree there. After that I ate my lunch which I had packed while taking in the view.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Actun Tunichil Muknal

Actun Tunichil Muknal is a giant cave system that was sacred to the ancient Mayans. To get there we had to drive across rural farmland once thought to be inhabited by 10,000 Mayans around 800-900 A.D.


From there we had about a 1-2 mile hike through streams in the jungle. Along the way we saw a rubber tree, and a tree infested with termites. The termites are high in protein and a good survival resource if ever caught in the woods alone. We got to taste them and they taste remarkably, amazingly, like carrots...with a hint of mint.


In the jungle:

From the jungle we got to swim into the cave system. The water was rather cold, though not terrible. Inside the cave we had to negotiate extremely small and confined passage ways in water that was chest deep if not deeper. I began to find out that I am a bit claustrophobic.

The cave was amazing and full of crystal made mostly of calcium, but some copper and iron also. The full effect of the cave was to make you feel the magic and pulse of life again. Seeing walls covered in calcium really brought home what an amazing miracle life is. How every element comes together to create every different type and form of life on the earth.


Inside the cave were many Mayan artifacts. Mostly pots, but also some stones for grinding corn. Due to lack of rain and therefore lack of crops and food the Mayan civilization began to go into decline. Only elite leaders were allowed into the caves where they mutilated and bleed themselves. The elite Mayans in the cave would burn whatever blood they collected, hoping the dark smoke would form dark rain clouds and please the gods. However, as none of this worked, the elites soon turned to sacrificing themselves, leaving behind bones and skulls in the caves:

The national geographic shot:

All this brought home an important message: Any civilization or person which can afford it, will adopt strange and illogical traditions in the hopes that it will make their life richer and better. Kind of like us with the U.S. congress...or something.

The effect of seeing such history does lead to interesting questions though, i.e.: What traditions do I have that are just as misguided and useless, what can I do that will actually look as if it made a difference in 900 years, and if there is nothing, then what is all the point of this effort?

At the guest house where I stay are people who can make enough money in 4-5 months to afford spending the rest of the time traveling. Generally drained and apathetic types, these guys tend to be long stay residents of the town, they potter about town, meet the locals, and perhaps jot down vague impressions for a later day novel. Thus it is that they are slowly whiling away life in a $10/night guest house and doing whatever to fill days...and yet, I can't say it is that much worse than anyone who spends 40 hours a week going to any job just to pay the bills. What is the net cost, what is the net effect on a soul? Is it not also some kind of strange hypnosis by which time can pass and one can stay seemingly unconscious?

I don't want to sound cynical here. I think there are plenty of people that have found work that satisfies and excites them so they are truly productive to the fullest each day. However, I also feel there are plenty more who are just on a treadmill, afraid to take a crack at whatever their passion is in life, and in this case, it doesn't make much difference if you are hanging out in a small Central American town or an office cubical. Like the Mayans who made a sacrifice to burn their blood, taking a job for some "necessity" an easy way out. The idea being that self-sacrifice is always justified and must lead to some greater good. The result is the postponement of the need to take a serious look at ones own life and see where or what exactly is the responsible and sensible thing to do with it.

This has come home to me recently because I will be heading back soon and I am looking forward to it. I am genuinely excited to try be an entrepreneur, to start and work new and different jobs where I can test my current skills and learn new ones. Most people I meet seem to want to keep traveling forever, the alternative of home is a dull and painful one. In this case, I feel a sharp contrast. As good as all the adventure of this trip has been, I am ready, even excited to get back, and to get started.

I think there is a lot that has been learned about the world we live in, and a lot more which can be learned. I feel like there is some duty for everyone to fill in which they increase the learning and knowledge of the world. As they progress consciously and actively, they create a new form and identity. An identity of complexity that cannot be broken apart or studied, one without origin or end.
"Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing."Cormack McCarthy - Blood Meridian

"The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate." Cormack McCarthy - Blood Meridian

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sailing Ships

I left San Pedro and found myself in Caye Caulker about an hour later. A laid back beach town Caulker is nice, but as I had took a day trip there before I found myself wanting to push on to the mainland. I was thinking of heading on, but then saw a sign for a 3 day sailing and camping trip going out the next day, so by the magic that is impulse, I decided to take the trip and stay the night on Caulker.

The sailing trip was very nice, 3 British students studying to be doctors, 10 Harvard Law students about to graduate, 3 Caribbean Garifuna guides, and a sprinkle of solo travelers like myself, made the mix for the journey south along the coast of Belize, from Caye Caulker to Placencia.

The trip consisted of sailing clear blue waters with occasional stops to snorkel and see tropical fish. The first night we stopped off at an impossibly small island (pictures later) pitched tents and had a camp fire. The next night was at Tobacco Caye, which was a little bigger, and at least inhabited by other people. 3 hotels, two restaurants, two bars, and a handful of houses, gave the place an air of civilization. Still, we pitched tents and camped again. One of the bars had live music in the form of 3 drummers. Perfect for dancing.

The trip had an interesting dynamic. The Harvard Law students all had their impending graduation in mind, and their new jobs to start. It was a sharp contrast of my recent departure from the formal working world, and it seemed odd to hear their worries and concerns about their jobs ahead. We were the same age and yet in completely different worlds.

I spent a lot of time working on the ship. I washed dishes, got to cook a meal once, dropped and raised the anchor (that means hauling up a very heavy chain), and even got to sail the boat. I am not sure, but I feel that this helped me get more of a connection with the crew. The best way to understand someone is to try do their job and see the work that weaves the center of their reality. If I am going to make a connection with the Caribbean Garifuna culture, I feel like that is the closest I will get. I think the trip to them seemed odd. Us tourists paying money to be taken down a coast line they knew with their eyes closed. Kind of like tourists paying me to drive them 200 miles along I-40 East, or something... In any case they were very nice. Towards the end of the trip we traded photos of our family and I am very proud to say, they gave me a crew t-shirt!

After the trip, I stayed the night in Placencia with my new British friends. In the morning we took the bus inland, and parted ways at San Ignacio were I am typing this now. They continued on to the border and into the Guatemala...

So far, San Ignacio is very nice. A mountain town, full of fruit stands, and a much lower cost of living than the islands. It feels like a breath of fresh air, it feels more like reality. I like it very much.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Around Ambergris

Last day on Ambergris Caye

Today I left Ambergris Caye so here are a few scenes from the place:






Dennis, the woodcarver. "Sit down, you ain't got no place to go"


The school. Note the cart with the parasol nearby the fence to sell candy to the kids.




One the whole, Ambergris is a charming place. I can see how people end up moving or retiring here. Downstairs from where I stayed is a bar. Most of the 'locals' (i.e. people who have moved to the caye) hang out at that bar. I went down to meet them one night. They are a mix of British/Canadian/American people. Charming, cheerful, gregarious, and friendly, it was good to meet them all. The bar was outfitted with a bell at the corner. Whenever someone would ring it, they would buy shots of Jaeger for everyone in the bar.

The bar is owned by an English gentleman who by the end of the night was singing along to Beetle songs in the back corner. Joining him was a Scotish gentleman who was rallying fans for a big Glasgow soccer match. "THARTY SIX YARRS OF HISTREEY" he bellowed, adding weight to the impending match. Click for photos and coverage from the night at the bar

The really nice thing is that you run into these people, and other people you meet, quite often on the caye. The place only has three main streets: front, back, and middle. It becomes almost like a Northern Exposure, or MASH episode or something. Interest is built simply by coincidence. "Oh, I just bumped into so and so" or "there goes such and such, must be on his way to so and so's." It is very nice and certainly a feature missing from Cary. There you are lucky to bump into anyone you know maybe once a year.
The small town effect doesn't just create interest, but it creates a kind of charm. You can just bump into someone, and then decide to join them for coffee. This happened to me today when I bumped into Laurie, a full time blogger for the caye. (see her blog) I always think a good lithmus for a place being a nice place to live is the ability to bump into someone and then have a coffee with them at a sheik outdoor place. In that regard, Ambergris passes the test.

As I am leaving I want to talk a little about how it was coming to this place and how it was those first few days backpacking alone. For one thing, I was pretty home sick (still am), I missed the comfort of home, I missed my usual activities and routines...but on the other hand, each day the caye grew on me more and more. Now that I am leaving, I find that I will really miss it. I will miss the new routines and activities I have for myself here. Strange how people are like that, eh?

I kind of feel torn, like I should stay on, even if just for a week. It will let me get to know the place more, I could have time to volunteer at the school...but, that would be the easier way out...right now, more adventure awaits...or if it doesn't, then I can always return! :)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Snorkeling with the Sharks

I went snorkeling today, and met Sue, an experienced diver who agreed to protect me from all that could go wrong on a snorkel expedition, and I must say, she did watch my back, and she stuck her head up from time to time to make sure I was OK. Most kind.

Belize has 174 miles of coastline all of which has a barrier reef that is part of the second largest coral reef system in the world (behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef). We started by pulling up to a line of buoys:

OK everyone, lets get ready to snorkel!

No, really, get your flippers on!

At this point both the guide and Sue immediately say "Oh, they won't bother you." And in fairness, they were right. The guide even caught one in his arms for us to touch:

Nurse sharks feel like they have scales, almost like a snake. The guide said they feel like sandpaper, and I would agree with that too. In any case they have rough skin. I have no idea what their teeth feel like, and I will gladly leave that a mystery for the remainder of my life.

In the water we also got to touch some sting rays that did not have any stingers. They feel very soft, and almost slimy. The guide was practically hugging one in the water and had his hand in it's mouth. He had a kind of slow feeding tube to keep the fish around.

Going through the reef was cool too. Snorkeling is a nice experience. First you are afraid to get in the water, but once you are in, you are taken over by distraction. It is another world down there with so many cool schools of fish to see. Plus bigger fish like barracuda. We got to see and follow 4 sea turtles for a while which was just great. For the most part, snorkeling is like all the nature programs, but "more real", and you tend to notice more. As you drift about you go from shallow to deep waters, sometimes abruptly. At one point we approached a steep cliff that was lined with coral. It is the closest I think I will get to the feeling of flying.

When you snorkel, there is always a current on you, and when you go from shallow to deep the temperature can really change abruptly. Our guide would often take dips down to the bottom floor. We even came upon a small cave and he swam right in. I tried to follow, but let me say this: stick your head down 4-5 feet under the ocean and you will feel sharp pain in your ears. Very sharp. Sue and the guide said I should hold my nose and blow air out my ears, but the thought was too upsetting. If I am going to lose hot air, it is going to be when I am talking, thank you very much!



Laminai is an ancient Mayan ruin which is only partly excavated. Built around 3000 a.d. the Laminai site was never abandoned and had Mayan Indians living on it till 1981 when the Belize government turned the ruins into a park, and by the magic of law, what was once peoples homes now became a tourist attraction.



The pyramids, or temples, were often built by leaders as monuments to themselves. Thus, most of them are not hollow, have no rooms, and serve no purpose other than to represent a ruler's greatness in history. And they do that well.


Climbing to the top!


At the top!


On the way back from the ruins we went through the villiage of Bomba. Bomba was a run down sort of place where one out of every two buildings was falling apart neglected. I asked Oliver, a nice chap from London, to snap a photo of me next to this tire which had fallen over by the river. We thought it would be good to do a "Tires of the World series" Not a bad idea. Collections really are funny things. They tend to give people a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I.E., look at all the stamps, coins, cards, games, marbles, cars, money I have collected! I am being be fair, it is hard to argue with this, collecting various things isn't a bad thing to do in life. Especially if it can pay off later, like with money. But it does seem disheartening that so much of a sense of accomplishment does weight in on having a mission like this.

Lately I have also been debating types of travel. Is it better to stay in one place for at least 2 weeks and get a grip on things. Thus, you only see one city, but you get to know it properly. Or to bus your way through a country in 2-3 days, "seeing" everything, but not really "knowing" it? I guess it depends largely on where you are, and what you want to do. In life, there is never enough time for all the combinations.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

micky mouse

Travelling alone with frugal habits is a grinding experience. You tend not to buy into things. Imagine setting out to Disneyland for and indefinite period of time just to try gain an appreciation of the place. When people ask you how long you are staying, you say "Oh, I don't know... a month maybe", "Oh, you're lucky" they say right away, "but it isn't really Micky Mouse", you want to say back, "it is just some guy in a suit."

I don't want to sound bitter, I am just saying this is an aspect of things down here, it is geared for tourists, and I knew that going in...I can say that I have learned two key lessons from the experience:

1. It is easier to buy into the charm of things when you are in a group
2. Having set plans for the day is a big determinate of success and happiness

This second is the most evident. Everyone makes plans and obligations for themselves when no one else decides to impose some on them, and it is a big part of human happiness. I don't know if it is because having tasks and obligations are such a powerful form of distraction, or if people just need structure in their everyday lives. But I do know that having plans makes a good deal of difference.

Thus it is that I am going to go see some Mayan ruins tomorrow, then go snorkel at a coral reef game reserve on Thursday. Then on Friday I have been invited to tour a school where I might go on to volunteer the next week.

Today I went to Caye Caulker, It is a lovely island town, with sandy streets, one central main street, a few grocery shops, restaurants, laundry, and a post office. The rest is hotels and one hostel. It all seems nice, and to me, it seems like it is "set-up" for young backpackers, as those were the people mostly around, other than a few locals and east-asian business owners.

After Caulker I stopped by the library here on San Pedro. It is mostly a library for kids, and it was nice to see them smiling at me as they looked at their books and joked around with each other. Seeing them is an encouragement to go volunteer at the school. I also wish I had brought a few books or magazines, as the library could probably use them.


Oh, and before I forget I met a student from UCLA today who is here to save the crocodiles. She was actually inspired by the crocodile hunter and so is now making this her mission before going on the grad school to study crocodile pathology. It was inspiring, and I think the next time I travel, it would be good to have a mission like this, which is in line with life goals...

Monday, May 12, 2008

fish fillet

Ambergris has a very small town atmosphere. You tend to see, or bump into the same people again and again...I have met and made friends with a grocery store owner here now. We chat back and forth..."I need to be patient, if I rush, I won't get anything done" he told me today. This is basically "haste makes waste" and well, it is a way of life here I think...

Later in the evening a crowd gathered as someone had caught a big dorado(mahi-mahi), I don't know how much it weighed, but it was one of those fish that was as tall as the guy who caught it when they hung it up. After weighting it they gutted and filleted it right there on the dock. The guts attracted a 2-3 large sting rays and kids gathered to hold guts close to the surf as to draw the sting rays closer. After that they picked up the mud of the surf and made it into balls, which they threw at the rays...

A lady I met told me that I could volunteer at one of the schools here, and possibly the library. I will go check out the library tomorrow and might try the schools later on. To be honest, I don't know if I have the heart for it, but I think I should at least try.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Getting airlifted out of your country and finding yourself in a completely different place is usually a shock to the system, and leaving Cary N.C. to arrive in Ambergris Caye, Belize is no exception.

Leaving your environment forces you to realize all the dependencies you had in your home. (i.e. getting shot out into space would suddenly make you realize just how important air is to you). I mention this since I am now going to list all the differences that have come to my attention in my first ~18 hours here:

  • Tap water is not recommended, which makes drinking water $1.50 a gallon, and I used to complain about Cary water prices...
  • I also used to complain about no sidewalks in Cary, but the situation is much the same here. Not that big of a deal since most everyone drives golf carts.
  • People are really, really laid back. Really. I found out that I am a work-a-holic.(if you guys can believe it!) My brain kept on telling me that I needed to be doing something, that I am lazy...though what else would a work-a-holic say?
  • Electrical outlets, electricity, cell phones, Internets, all this stuff is now scarce. This goes with backpacking and staying in hostels instead of hostels or resorts. You are forced to slow down. Today my mission was to call home and get drinking water. When was the last time that took you most of the afternoon?
  • Then again, beach is like 30 seconds away from everywhere, so everything has its pluses and minuses...

Tropical fruits, hand-made arepas, watching Lebanese t.v. in Lebanese owned stores... is all in there too...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What to pack?

(in order of importance)
1. Passport
2. Some U.S. cash and rest to rely on CC card or Debit
3. Large backpack
4. 4 changes of clothes - 1 pant, shorts/t-shirts** / long sleeve shirt / floppy hat (or cap coz I don't think I have a floppy hat)
5. Smaller Day pack
6. Sun screen
7. Some kind of insect repellent
8. Swim suit
9. Towel
10. Pocket knife
11. Snorkel
12. Goggles
13. Thin sheets (blanket maybe)
14. mp3 player (music and audio books)
15. batteries and battery recharger
14. Mag light
15. Wash cloth
16. Rope for hanging wet clothes to dry
17. Zip lock bags and maybe a small tupperware
18. Digital camera
19. Laptop (maybe)
20. Books (various and maybe)

**no tank tops